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28 May 2024

As if the Sea should part

As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea —
And that — a further — and the Three
But a presumption be —

Of Periods of Seas —
Unvisited of Shores —
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be —
Eternity — is Those —

      -F720, J695, Fascicle 35, 1863

This poem is trippy, with its image of seas parting to reveal more seas parting to reveal more seas, on and on. It's an exhaustion of revelations, each showing the same thing as the last. The idea in the first line is already funny. The poem begins with the conjunction "as if," but the analogy presented is suspect, isn't it? Seas don’t part. Not unless you are an old testament God. We are already in the area of the impossible. So when we get to the sea being revealed beneath the parted sea, it is like the surreal nonsense of Lewis Carroll. Below everything is more of everything. To me this is like the child contemplating eternity, realizing there can never not be a beginning before the beginning, nor an end to the end, getting a headache from thinking about it and then it abandoning it altogether for some milk and cookies.

In the first stanza you get one Sea leading to two and then three (each increasingly ludicrous, an expansion of expansiveness) until you arrive at what you presume to be a whole period of Seas. "But a presumption be —/ Of Periods of Seas —" A "presumption” is not the same as knowledge, since you can never really know how far those Periods of seas go. 

Period has a nice doubleness here. It’s a contranym, a word that means two opposite things. It means “stop,” as in a sentence ending, or it can also be an ongoing period of time, one that will end, perhaps, but is indefinite and ongoing for the foreseeable future. (Dickinson was fond of contranyms. See a further discussion of Dickinson’s use of contranyms here). 

We can’t ever see the seas beneath the seas beneath the seas though, because we are here on shore. Eternity is likened here to the verge of the seas we will never see. "Period" in this poem is a key word. It signals stop, it intimates staying on shore. The Eternal may be seductive, but why would we move off of the shore and into empty endlessness? But to what end? Sometimes Eternity is a positive word in Dickinson, but sometimes it is not. Sometimes it is as far removed from the present as can be. 

It is quite possible that I am adding a negative dimension to this vision of Eternity that the poem doesn't support. But I can't see anything on the other side of those parting seas luring me in, just more parting

  -/)dam Wade l)eGraff


The Sonnets To Orpheus: Book 2: Xiii

Be ahead of all parting, as though it already were 
behind you, like the winter that has just gone by. 
For among these winters there is one so endlessly winter 
that only by wintering through it all will your heart survive. 

Be forever dead in Eurydice-more gladly arise 
into the seamless life proclaimed in your song. 
Here, in the realm of decline, among momentary days, 
be the crystal cup that shattered even as it rang. 

 Be-and yet know the great void where all things begin, 
the infinite source of your own most intense vibration, 
so that, this once, you may give it your perfect assent. 

To all that is used-up, and to all the muffled and dumb 
creatures in the world's full reserve, the unsayable sums,
 joyfully add yourself, and cancel the count. 

    -Rainer Maria Rilke, translated by Stephen Mitchell


  1. ∞ Vigilant

    That one who with your eyes does see
    The forms placed as eternity
    And that which grasps and aches; it roars
    It splits the world, it forges doors

    Across the place where none dare go
    With dire sound afore the leap
    As those that follow those who know
    That stand between, and speak the sign

    So worlds of birth and death align.

    Across the gulf unbridged, unseen
    Across the deadly road between
    Became the path, and saw it done
    The seventh star, immortal sun

    Throughout the norms, their mysteries
    All origin in symmetries, from which my source
    Finds out its form, and aches to speak immortal
    Storm that shatters all this fiction’s fakes

    As from good vigils, spirits wake.

    -Darin Stevenson

    1. The Rilke and Stevenson poems are so resonant with this evocative poem (and wonderful by themselves). Your explication and insights, Adam, brought the poem to life for me. Thank you!

  2. Hmmm. In addition to her poetry, ED had the mindset of a scientist. Before she wrote poetry, she collected plant species, accurately identified them, and mounted them on herbarium sheets as professionally as any botanist of her time. More importantly, she questioned dogma and demanded evidence of untested hypotheses like resurrection and heaven. And most importantly, she was a skeptic but kept her mind open to new evidence.

    In 1863, when she composed this poem, there were two wars raging, the American Civil War and a Religion/Science War in England and America. Lyell (1830) and Darwin (1859), among others, had challenged Christianity’s dogma of Creation, including how and when it happened. As one might suspect, ED kept a close eye on both wars, avidly reading Bowles’ highly regarded newspaper, ‘The Springfield Republican’, along with ‘The Hampshire and Franklin Express’, and ‘The Amherst Record’. In addition, the Dickinson family subscribed to ‘Harper's New Monthly Magazine’, ‘Scribner's Monthly’, and ‘The Atlantic Monthly’ (Capps 1966).

    In the poem’s last line, she tries to merge Science and Religion.

    An interpretation of ‘As if the Sea should part’ (F720) by a scientist:

    Stanza 1 – “To me [ED] the sea seems permanent, but science opened willing eyes, including mine, to possibilities of sea after sea after sea in Earth’s history, but that would be a presumption [hypothesis]”

    Stanza 2 – “Those periods of seas – / Unvisited by shores – / Themselves the Verge of Seas to be - / Eternity - is Those –”.

    • Charles Lyell, 1830, Principles of Geology,;
    • Charles Darwin, 1859, On the Origin of Species
    • Capps, J. L., 1966, ‘Emily Dickinson’s Reading’, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA, 143 pp.

    PS. Hooray! Another ED poem without mention of Charles Wadsworth.

  3. In the July and August 1860 issues of The Atlantic Monthly, Harvard’s Asa Gray, the leading botanist in the United States, published an 11,000-word positive review of Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’. Darwin reprinted Gray's essay as a pamphlet in England.

    In the October 1860 issue of The Atlantic, Gray published a , 12,000-word essay countering negative reviews of Darwin’s book, including Louis Agassiz's. 1859. Essay on Classification (London: Longman). 381 pp.

    The Atlantic Monthly was "required reading" in the Dickinson household.

    • Juliana Chow. 2014. “Because I see—New Englandly—”: Seeing Species in the Nineteenth-Century and Emily Dickinson’s Regional Specificity. ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, 60(3): 413-449.

    • Asa Gray. 1860. “Darwin on the Origin of Species” and “Darwin and His Reviewers". The Atlantic Monthly. Vol. 6 Nos. 33, 34, 36.